Italian olive production, that immense heritage of olive trees, farmers and oil pressers found all over Italy, even as far as the most southerly islands, is going through very tough times. For several years, the olive oil market has been dominated by major commercial brands, which impose rules and prices that are unsustainable for small-scale oil producers. The crisis is directly linked to the industrialization of olive growing, with the creation of super-plants and increasingly mechanized processes. This has made premium oils uncompetitive, because they are too expensive for a system that is always on the lookout for the lowest price, with increasingly poorer quality.
The industry is suffering not just because of competition from inferior products from abroad, but also because there is no differentiation of quality products on the market and little knowledge about them. There is little awareness among consumers, who are now used to excessively low prices and frequently substandard oils.
Approved olive oils
The Slow Food Manifesto for Extra-Virgin Olive Oil, produced in 2011, states: “On the global market, extra-virgin olive oil is often an approved product made from a blend of oils of different provenance, which therefore has no link to the region of origin. It is practically impossible to ensure oil traceability and has created market prices that are incompatible with the costs of production that pays attention to the quality of the product and of the process.”
In addition to these factors, if we consider that 2014 was one of the most disastrous ever because of bad weather and parasites, such as the olive fruit fly, forcing most producers not to harvest and press their olives, it is clear that in these circumstances Italian olive growers have no option but to abandon the olive groves they have cultivated until now, or else produce oil at no profit.
So what can be done? How can quality Italian products be promoted? The project of a national Slow Food Presidium, dedicated to quality extra-virgin olive oil production is intended to do just that, by promoting a product, as well as the environmental, natural, health and economic benefits of such production. It is a national project because extra-virgin olive oil producers across Italy are having to deal with the same problems in different production areas.
Olive grower members must have olive groves of a cultivar that is indigenous to the region they are based in and which are managed without the use of synthetic fertilizers or chemical herbicides, using environmentally-friendly treatment products that leave no residue on the product. In the case of slopes and complicated landscapes, the land must be cultivated in accordance with guidelines and good agricultural practices to avoid soil erosion and landslides.
As pruning or harvesting olives from old trees is much harder than from young trees, at least 80% of the trees in the olive grove must be at least 100 years old, in order to prevent the abandonment of olive groves with greater natural beauty and environmental value. Possible exceptions will be granted in production areas with younger trees if justified on historical or environmental grounds.
In order to guarantee optimal quality of the Presidium-labeled product and to respect the sustainability of the crops, olives must not be harvested from the ground using permanent nets or by using products to induce falling; instead, they must be harvested by hand or using tools that do not compromise the integrity of the olives and do not damage the tree’s foliage. The product must come from a single variety or from an olivaggio (a blend of local varieties), with the label indicating not just the provenance, but also the relevant marketing year and the press used (on a strictly continuous basis).
Membership will be annual and subject to an annual evaluation of the crop by a panel of expert tasters. Producers will also have to have a narrative label not just to satisfy customers’ questions, but also to tell their own story and to have it properly promoted by being printed on the label.
We are confident that giving recognition to producers and extra-virgin oils in a project such as the Slow Food Presidium, indicated on the label, can not only help promotion, but also encourage other producers to follow in their footsteps.
This article was first published in the Slow Food Almanac.